Germ cell tumours

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Germ cell tumours are a type of cancer that start in the germ cells. Learn about where germ cell tumours are most commonly found, how they are diagnosed and the main types of treatment.

Key points

  • Germ cells play a part in human reproduction.
  • Germ cell tumours are most commonly found in the testicles and the ovaries.
  • Germ cell tumours are diagnosed through blood tests and a biopsy, as well as scans.
  • The main treatments include surgery and chemotherapy.

What are germ cell tumours?

Germ cell tumours are a cancer that starts in the germ cells of the body. The word "germ" in germ cell comes from the word "germinate", which means to give life. It does not mean germ like the kind that makes you sick.

Germ cells are the cells in our bodies that play a part in human reproduction. A germ cell tumour starts with a mutation in one of these cells. The mutation causes the cell to divide out of control. As the cells divide again and again, a tumour forms.

In teens, germ cell tumours are most commonly found in the:

  • testicles (in boys), where they form a painless lump
  • ovaries (in girls), where they form a lump in the abdomen (belly) that can be painful and make it hard to go to the bathroom.

Although germ cells are part of reproduction, they can also be found in the abdomen, chest and brain. This is because in the months before we are born, germ cells move around our tiny growing body to the parts that will later develop into our sex organs. Some of these cells do not make it all the way to their destination and tumours can form where these cells are left.

How are germ cell tumours diagnosed?

Doctors learn what type of germ cell tumour you have through a process called diagnosis.

Usually diagnosis of a germ cell tumour starts with a doctor examining you and asking you a lot of questions about how you are feeling and why you came to the clinic or the hospital. The doctor will then do blood tests and a biopsy to get a sample of the cells in the tumour. The doctor will look at this sample under a microscope to check for cancerous cells. They will also do some scans to get a picture of the inside of your body. This can help the doctor see how big the tumour is and if the cancer has spread.

How are germ cell tumours treated?

Doctors use the information they gather to plan your treatment. Your treatment will depend on:

  • where the cancer is located
  • the type of germ cell involved
  • the stage of the cancer (whether it has spread)

Usually treatment for germ cell tumours includes surgery to remove the tumour and often chemotherapy to kill cancer cells still in the body.

Prognosis for germ cell tumours

Your doctor will probably talk to you and your family about a prognosis. A prognosis means the likelihood or chance that treatment will work and that you will get better from cancer. Like your treatment, your prognosis will depend on where the tumour is located and whether it has spread.

The best source of information about your cancer is your health-care team. If you have any questions or there is anything you do not understand about your cancer, ask your doctors and nurses. They want to help you understand your cancer.

If you are nervous about asking the doctors or nurses yourself, you can talk to your parents/caregiver. They may be able to answer your questions or can help you ask questions when talking to the health-care team.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019